As some school districts across the country move to take police officers out of schools, local criminal justice officials at a meeting Thursday expressed a desire to more explicitly define the roles of those officers.
The Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council met Thursday afternoon by video, and members discussed that topic and several others at a time of heightened attention on the criminal justice system.
Kelly Mattingly, the council’s chairman, started the discussion on school resource officers by referencing data that showed children of color were being arrested at disproportionately high rates.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore and Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary explained that what might commonly be referred to as arrests in schools go on a different path than arrests in the community.
Cases are referred to the county’s juvenile justice program, and Moore said that doesn’t necessarily mean entering on a path toward prison because other programs are set up to help juveniles.
O’Leary said he has been concerned in recent years that schools are moving too many school disciplinary matters to officers. If schools see a student acting up, he said, they can too often hand it over to the officers to deal with.
“I started to see an abdication of any responsibility for school discipline by the schools,” he said, adding that he wants officers’ roles to be more clearly established.
Michelle Brandemuehl, a defense attorney, asked if they could get feedback from students of color themselves on how they feel about having officers in their schools.
She also wondered what else could be done to help students if schools had more resources.
Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said the school resource officer program is important for school safety but also for building relationships with young people in the area. Seeing police in a school setting also might help with recruitment for future officers, he added.
No one at the meeting Thursday called for taking officers out of local schools.
The council also approved a resolution condemning the death of George Floyd, supporting peaceful demonstrations, calling for action on racial reconciliation and committing to addressing systemic racism in the county.
But the council narrowly voted against adding Rayshard Brooks to the list of names in the resolution. Although an Atlanta police officer was charged with murder and aggravated assault in Brooks’ recent killing, Zibolski said the case was not as clear cut as Floyd’s.
The meeting went over other areas of note.
Where’s the data?
Community member Harriet Everette said she wanted to see data on charges filed by the district attorney’s office and decisions by judges broken down by variables such as race, sex or type of offense.
She expressed frustration that in 2020, that data was not easily accessible.
O’Leary said offices such as his are better equipped to gather data, but they lack the systems to analyze it.
“Unfortunately, we’re the government,” he said. “So we don’t have the data analysts or the data systems that the private sector does.
“We’ve been scheduled to get new equipment and new computers the last four years to update our system,” he continued. “We’re usually about a decade behind everybody in equipment and software, but we just don’t have the ability to do what you’re asking of ‘click a button and get a report.’”
Local law enforcement leaders shared how important it was for officers to get out into the community to get to know the residents they are tasked with protecting.
But they also said COVID-19 is making it harder to do that this year.
Mattingly asked the police members of the council about their efforts to recruit officers of color.
The police officials said they are trying to recruit more, but it’s difficult.
Sheriff Troy Knudson said he wants his agency to mirror the community’s demographics, but they need to look more deeply at the entire process to find out where candidates of color are falling out.
Moore said officers of color are in high demand across the country.
“It’s been difficult for us,” he said. “One of the challenges I have here in Janesville, is Janesville is not necessarily viewed as friendly to African Americans and other races. … I think we have a community issue to work through, not just a police department issue to work through.”
Marc Perry, the executive director for Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties, agreed with Moore’s “incredibly valid” point that the community needs to be inclusive to have effective recruitment.
“It’s not just about the job itself,” he said. “It’s about quality of life.”